The Google of Its Day

No, it’s not easy to detect the precise moment when the trouble began, when the world began to change, when everything that worked for a century suddenly stopped working. There are theories, and books written, and somehow, the old ways seem distant, and inconceivable in their naiveté. And there are new ideas, new companies, new ways of thinking and connecting that don’t much resemble the old. But one thing is clear: everything else may change, but in my world, in your job, in our town, everything is going to be just fine if we just cut some costs, say the magic words “social networking” three times daily, and reinforce one another’s thinking about the value of maintaining the status quo.

I keep thinking about Kodak. George Eastman was 24 years old when he (and other hobbyists) figured they could build an industry by making photography easier. From 1878 until 1883, he opened a factory, and by 1888, he was selling shares. He struggles to find a market in the US, finds one in Europe, brings it all back home, and by 1900, Kodak is the hot start-up company. It sells cameras for $1 and rolls of film for 15 cents. By 1907, Kodak employs 5,000 people (about the number it employs today). By 1914, Kodak builds a skyscraper. By 1924, George Eastman gives half of his $75 million (in today’s dollars, $2 billion) fortune to charitable causes–including $12 million in start-up funds for what becomes MIT. In 1932, at age 77, Eastman kills himself (the suicide note read: “Why wait?”). Still, Kodak kept on growing: in 1935, Kodak introduced Kodachrome color slide film, in and jumping ahead to 1962, Kodak sales exceeded $1 billion, and the company was heavily invested in future technologies, a strategy employed well into the 2000s, when the company was an early leader in digital photography at all levels, from medical imaging to consumer cameras.

Kodak was the Google of its day. — The Economist (see history or official Kodak history)

Today, Kodak is almost non-existent. Nearly gone. After closing its factories, leaving the camera business and nowadays, selling off its patents, a century’s success is fading like the (Polaroid) snapshot in Back to the Future 2.

Why did Kodak fail? Some theories:

Kodak did not fail because it missed the digital age. It actually invented the first digital camera in 1975. However, instead of marketing the new technology, the company held back for fear of hurting its lucrative film business, even after digital products were reshaping the market. — Forbes.

And then there are companies like Kodak — which saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do. Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on January 19 culminates the company’s 30-year slide from innovation giant to aging behemoth crippled by its own legacy. — Knowledge@Wharton

The company might have been able to innovate more quickly on the digital front if it had set up a separate lab in Silicon Valley, then allowed it to grow independently and tap into the area’s tech culture and expertise.” — Knowledge@Wharton

And what should Kodak have done?

– Enter the cell phone business? It tried this a bit. Didn’t work.

– Recognize that it was really in the memory business and diversify into storage? Nice try.

– Increase its R&D? Kodak did that, spending most of the money on improving film technology.

– Diversify into healthcare? It did that too. Didn’t work.

– Spin off its chemical business? It did that, generating some cash. But small potatoes.

– Integrate backwards into semiconductors? Way out of its competency.

In the end, Kodak (now on the brink of bankruptcy) was a well run company that failed. It was an early technology company, and it never lost its technology roots. It then became a marketing behemoth and a superb consumer company. It then morphed into a financially run enterprise and it did that well–until it failed. — Information Week

And what does this mean for the rest of us?

That’s a question I want to explore in future blog articles. Clearly, the digital revolution in motion, gaining considerable momentum as the spookiness of the dot.com bubble fades from memory. I would imagine that schools and education will be the next frontier, the next “it can’t happen here” that will be utterly transformed, but there are significant political and economic class issues driving the status quo. I wonder whether the top ranks of the Fortune 500 will continue to be dominated by companies associated with cars and fuel in thirty years (remember: thirty years ago, Kodak was still hot stuff). We’re been seeing tremendous technology-driven changes in health care, and now, with new rules and an increasingly stable economy, and the dreadful statistics about health care needs of aging baby boomers, the opportunities in this area seem rich, particularly in the digital space (tele-medicine,  patient education, digital tracking of patience care, etc.)

What about Black-and-White?

Back in the analog stone age, shooting in monochrome was a creative choice made in advance. You’d buy a few ISO 400 rolls of Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X, and head out for a day of serious photography, hoping for just one image worthy of framing.

In fact, black-and-white analog photography offers several advantages. There is at least four times as much picture information, so contrasts can be stronger, textures can be more refined, and enlargements can be, well, larger. About half of this work is done in the field, mostly by selecting and composing with intelligence, and by selecting an appropriate optical filter to place on the lens. For example, sky contrast can be dramatically increased by using a red filter, but sometimes, detail in shadows is lost with a red filter, so an orange filter may be more suitable. Corrections are then made in the analog or digital darkroom, a trial-and-error process that becomes easier after a lot of hours of experimentation and instruction.

Working with a digital camera, the best black-and-white images are derived from color images, but maybe not in the way you’d think. The adventure begins with a digital camera that can shoot RAW images–so plan to spend at least $500 on the camera. Lesser cameras, and less-than-serious photographers with better cameras, shoot in JPG to jam more images onto an SD card. If you start with a JPG created in the camera, your black-and-white images will lack detail, clarity and snap. Your expensive digital camera offers an instant monochrome option. No, you shouldn’t use it, not if you are serious about your photography.

Instead, you can achieve miracles by post processing your RAW image in Aperture, Photoshop, or other software capable of handling RAW images. With desktop software, you can add the equivalent of colored filters and gradient filters, with a level of precision unavailable in the field, and unavailable in old school darkrooms.

In his book, Hoffmann goes into considerable detail about how this picture was made, and why it is so effective. He’s a very good teacher.

Is it worth the time? It’s worth the time if you train yourself to create the best possible images by learning a lot about composition, mood, street photography, landscape work, architectural photography, and abstract work from a master teacher. I’ve spent the past month or two studying the second edition of a fine book entitled The Art of Black and White Photography by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, published by Rocky Nook Press. He provides the necessary technical information, but spends most of his instructional time on important photographic ideas: how to avoid the cliché, achieving balance, dealing with visual irritations that cannot be moved, capturing people in their natural surroundings, visual rhythm, form and composition. Hoffmann is especially effective when he writes about, and photographs in, a strongly graphic style: strong contrasts, superior use of line and form, repetition to suggest speed or solidity. (Study the three Hoffmann images in this article, and notice, for example, the repeated pattern of small verticals–the fence posts in the top image, the decorative balusters in the second, and the train doors in the third supported in the distance by the verticals of the Manhattan skyline). These are not snapshots–they are photographs–and if there was any doubt about a blurry line between those two ideas, it disappears here. These are advanced ideas, most suitable for the experienced photographer or for the ambitious newcomer. The reward is in the learning, of course, and also in the tour of Hoffmann’s portfolio, which is sampled in this article and offered in expansive form on the photographer’s website.

The photographer is based in NYC. This image is one my favorites, but it comes from his website, and does not appear in the book.

A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (2 of 4)

I took this picture with an Olympus PEN camera because it was small enough to tote on a day in NYC. I left my bigger camera at home. Somehow, I always do.

For most photographers trained in the 20th century, the universal standard was 35mm film. The size of the negative: about 35mm wide, and about 24mm high, or, about 1 inch by 1.4 inches. Serious professional photographers preferred larger negatives, and the 120 film format remained (and remains) popular: here, the negative is 2 1/4 inches square, or wider, several times larger than the 35mm film popular with consumers. Larger negatives offer superior image quality, but they also require larger and more costly cameras and lenses.

Digital Image Sensors

So film is old-school, Kodak is gasping for survival, and everyone’s shooting snapshots with their iPhones using a 5 megapixel sensor that’s the size of a your smallest fingernail. And, for most purposes, including posting pictures on Facebook and printing snapshots, the image quality is adequate–as long as you’re shooting in place that has enough light, and not too much contrast.

What’s a sensor? It’s a flat surface filled with a great many small light-sensitive receptors. There are two popular designs: CMOS and CCD. The difference between them is complicated, and explained here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor

ISO and Sensitivity

In the film days, 400 ISO (or, if you’re older, ASA) film was four times as sensitive as 100 ISO film. In other words, using 400 ISO film instead of 100 ISO film offered benefits similar to using a lens with a large maximum aperture, perhaps an f/1.4 lens in place of an f3.6 lens.

The comparison is not a perfect one, though. Increased sensitivity often comes with increased grain, reduced detail, and lesser color quality / color clarity. Cameras that cost more than a few hundred dollars are fine up to about 800 ISO, but then, the image degrades. Newer sensors do a far better job in the 800, 1600 and even 3200 ISO range than older models. This is the push: buy a camera with better “low light sensitivity”–that is, with improved image rendition in the higher ISO ranges–and your 2012-vintage 16 MP camera will produce better images than my 2010-vintage 12 MP camera with its ancient two-year-old sensor design.

Megapixels and Sensor Size

Although camera marketers have latched onto megapixels as a way to justify different camera prices (a 10 MP camera costs more than a 5 MP camera), the number of megapixels on the image sensor should not guide you, at least not from the start.

Instead, focus on the size of the sensor. A “full-frame” sensor is the size of 35mm film–and requires a large, professional-quality body and accompanying lenses. For example the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a $3,500 camera that weighs about two pounds and occupies about 90 cubic inches, without a lens.

By comparison, an Olympus E-P3 uses a micro four thirds sensor that’s about 40% of the size, but it costs less than $1,000, weighs 11 ounces, and occupies less than 20 cubic inches, also without a lens.

In the real world of my life, I will not carry five pounds of camera, lenses and accessories with me everywhere, but I will carry a pound. If the image quality is acceptable.

Nikon, Sony, Fuji, and the Rest

In fact, several different sensor designs are becoming popular.

You’ve probably seen commercials and print ads for the Nikon 1 system, for example. It’s based upon a CX sensor format that’s about a quarter of the full 35mm frame. Image quality is good–and with the small sensor, Nikon has been able to manufacture small bodies (as small as reasonable ergonomics allow), and small lenses.

Sony’s small system is called the NEX, and they’ve already been through several generations their APC-S sensor system. The sensor size is somewhat larger than the micro four thirds standard, but somehow, this has resulted in an awkward combination of slightly larger lenses and slightly smaller bodies. The standard zoom, priced at $299, weighs about 7 ounces, but it’s about 2 1/2 inches wide and tall. This is a reasonable size for the lens, but the body is about 25% too small to balance the whole contraption. Fact is, APC-S requires a slightly larger body–16 cubic inches isn’t enough. Samsung, with its NX200, offers a seemingly more bulky body for an APS-C sensor, but, alas, there is no APC-S collective for that format, so Sony lenses are not compatible with Samsung lenses.

Fuji’s upcoming X-Pro 1 also uses a proprietary APS-C sensor for a wonderful new interchangeable lens system, but again, the larger sensor is associated with serious weight – the camera weighs a pound, occupies nearly 30 cubic inches without a lens, and operates (at a very high level) with (for now) just three proprietary lenses.

Panasonic and Olympus

Neither Panasonic nor Olympus are among the very largest camera makers, but they have benefitted from working together. By year end, there will be about 18 lenses in their micro four thirds format, each of them fully operable with significant advances in their micro four thirds sensor technology.

In fact, Olympus got off to a very good start with its earliest PEN cameras. Early on, the company’s engineers and management understood the importance of rendering accurate flesh tones, as well as a neutral, pleasing color palette. (Fujifilm and Nikon have also excelled in this quest.) By combining this special feature with the small size made possible by the micro four thirds format, PEN cameras quickly became a popular choice for serious photographers.

At this moment in 2012, Panasonic offers an extraordinary little micro four thirds camera, the GX1 ($699) that weighs just 11 ounces, occupies less than 20 cubic inches, and offers very impressive image quality with a 16 MB sensor. It’s filled with nifty features that will be addressed in the next article). This camera’s small size and wide array of available lenses and accessories makes it very appealing.

And yet, many photographers seem to prefer the slightly older Olympus E-P3, the current top-of-the-line PEN camera. It costs more ($899), and offers only a 12MB sensor, but the images are consistently excellent. This is not due to the number of megapixels, but instead, it is due to the right combination of engineering, aesthetic decisions during the design process (incorporating both lens and sensor design), and a corporate culture (a culture that has apparently remained intact despite gargantuan financial issues at the Board level).

This moment in 2012 (I am writing on the day after St. Patrick’s Day) is about to change.  Olympus is reading its small 16 MP camera, the E-M5, and a new Panasonic GF-5 is also on its way.

The Whole Package

Of course, it’s not just the sensor and it’s not just the lenses that make a camera or camera system. It’s the overall design philosophy, most often captured in the design of the camera body. That’s what’s coming up next.

Part 1: Lens

Part 3: Body

Part 4: Video

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